Israel’s Elder Statesman, Shimon Peres, Dies at 93

A photograph of former Israeli President Shimon Peres is displayed before the start of a special cabinet meeting to mourn the death of Peres, in Jerusalem September 28, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Ori Lewis

JERUSALEM, Sept 28 – Former Israeli president and elder statesman Shimon Peres, a joint winner of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, died in hospital on Wednesday at 93, two weeks after suffering a massive stroke.

A campaigner for Middle East peace who played a seminal role in Israeli politics for nearly 70 years, Peres was mourned by world leaders and praised for his tireless engagement.

U.S. President Barack Obama said: “A light has gone out”.

“There are few people who we share this world with who change the course of human history, not just through their role in human events, but because they expand our moral imagination and force us to expect more of ourselves, Obama said in a statement. “My friend Shimon was one of those people.”

Despite many decades of rivalry with Peres, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a right-winger who defeated then-Labour Party leader Peres in a 1996 election, praised him as a stalwart of the centre-left and a visionary.

“There were many things we agreed upon, and the number grew as the years passed. But we had disagreements, a natural part of democratic life,” Netanyahu said after holding a minute’s silence at a specially convened cabinet meeting.

“Shimon won international recognition that spanned the globe. World leaders wanted to be in his proximity and respected him. Along with us, many of them will accompany him on his last journey to eternal rest in the soil of Jerusalem.”

His funeral would take place on Friday at the Mount Herzl cemetery in a section dedicated to “Great Leaders of the Nation”.

Obama, French President Francois Hollande and Britain’s Prince Charles are among those expected to attend, Israeli radio reported, although Israel’s Foreign Ministry could not immediately confirm the attendance list.

An official announcement of Peres’s death was made at the Tel Hashomer hospital near Tel Aviv by his son Chemi and son-in-law Rafi Walden.

“His life ended abruptly when he was still working on his great passion, strengthening the country and striving for peace. His legacy will remain with us all,” Walden, who was also Peres’s personal physician, said.

There was no immediate formal statement from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Peres’s death.

Peres was part of almost every major political development in Israel since its founding in 1948. In a career spanning nearly seven decades, he served in a dozen cabinets and was twice a prime minister.

He was first elected to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in 1959 and barring a brief interlude in early 2006, held his seat for 48 years, until he became president in 2007.

In every role he undertook – from forging Israel’s defence strategy in the 1950s to running his eponymous peace foundation – Peres was known for his energy and enthusiasm, even recording jokey YouTube videos into his 90s.

“Optimists and pessimists die the same way,” he said in 2005. “They just live differently. I prefer to live as an optimist.”

He shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with the late former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for reaching an interim peace deal in 1993, the Oslo Accords, which never turned into a lasting treaty.

Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli ultra-nationalist who opposed the interim accords, and it was Peres who took over as prime minister after Rabin’s death.

Peres is widely seen as having gained nuclear capabilities for Israel by procuring the Dimona reactor from France while defence ministry director-general in the 1950s.

As defence minister, he oversaw the 1976 Israeli rescue of hijacked Israelis at Entebbe airport in Uganda.

In the Arab world, his legacy is tainted by the 1996 shelling of a United Nations compound in the village of Qana in southern Lebanon during an Israeli offensive. More than 100 civilians sheltering there were killed. Peres was prime minister at the time, and Israel said its forces had been aiming at militants firing rockets nearby.

Peres was also seen to have done little to rein in the expansion of Israeli settlements on land captured during the 1967 Middle East war, even if he was not an aggressive proponent of a policy that Obama has described as an obstacle to peace.

Since 2007, when he was elected president at his second attempt, Peres has played more of a ceremonial role, trying to raise Israel’s profile internationally while advocating for peace through his foundation and on foreign travels.

Despite the vast influence he has had on Israel’s political landscape, his death is not expected to have an impact on already dim prospects for a return to peace talks with the Palestinians that collapsed in 2014.

Peres had begun to scale back his activities after several health scares in recent months, including a stay in hospital after a minor heart attack this year. In September, he was fitted with a pacemaker, but continued to work at a high tempo.

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